What matters in education

Nice piece from Dana Goldstein about Hillary Clinton represents a sharp break with Obama on education policy.  Personally, I think Obama was too hard on teacher unions, as are many reformers.  That said, I think there are certainly some problems with teachers unions that should be addressed (yes, it should be easier to hire bad teachers).  The thing is, though, remedying issues with teacher unions is probably not even in the top 15 items that would actually improve public education (sadly, so many reformers seem to somehow think it’s issue #1).  Anyway, here’s a nice succinct summary from Goldstein of what does matter:

Research demonstrates five major, measurable influences on student achievement: Every study shows that, by far, the biggest factor is the educational background and socioeconomic status of parents. In-school factors account for less than half of the variation in how students perform, but at least four are important:peers (a poor child will perform worse if most of his or her classmates are also living in poverty); school funding (districts with more money per pupil provide more resources that kids need, from social workers and guidance counselors to foreign language and art classes); gaps in teacher quality, which research suggests account for between 7 and 15 percent of the achievement gap between poor and middle-class children; and principals, the key figure whose leadership can replicate good teaching across classroom walls.

Yes, we want better teachers.  It matters.  I’ve written plenty on what we should do about that.  But worrying about teacher quality and incentives does not matter as much addressing broader socio-economic issues and eliminating schools of concentrated high poverty.  How about we stop obsessing on teacher’s unions, charter schools, etc., and work on these five things.  Radical, I know.

Can you meaningfully reduce your cancer risk?

A while back, I read a highly-reviewed, but really disappointing book to Evan– Dead End in Norvelt (a story without any conflict really isn’t much of a story).  The one redeeming feature of the book is that there was a lot about obituaries in there and Evan and I started occasionally reading obituaries and discovering the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary people.

So, yesterday Evan was just sitting around at the kitchen table and started reading the obituaries and discovered that the long-time art teacher at his (and previously older brothers’) elementary school had recently died from ovarian cancer.  My kids loved her art classes and I had many a pleasant conversation with her at back-to-school nights and such over the years, but little did I realize that Mrs. Howard had played basketball for UNC or been a Miss Lincoln County.  Alas, she was done in my ovarian cancer at the age of 64.

Evan said he thought that people didn’t die from cancer any more.  If only.  It certainly got me thinking about not wanting to die from cancer.

So, by way of that lengthy introduction, that brings me to this recent post from Aaron Carroll in the Upshot on the preventability (and lack thereof) of various forms of cancer.  Here’s the thing– turns out there’s a lot you can to do to lower your risk of cancer.  For now, cancer is still very much a crapshoot with a lot of luck involved, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lower the odds of that bad luck hitting you.  To wit:

What we really care about is how much we can reduce our own risk of cancer by changing our behavior.

A more recent study published in Nature argues that there is a lot we can do. Many studies have shown that environmental risk factors and exposures contribute greatly to many cancers. Diet is related to colorectal cancer. Alcohol and tobacco are related to esophageal cancer. HPV is related to cervical cancer, and hepatitis C is related to liver cancer.

And you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that smoking causes lung cancer and that too much sun can lead to skin cancer.

Using sophisticated modeling techniques, the researchers argued that less than 30 percent of the lifetime risk of getting many common cancers was because of intrinsic risk factors, or the “bad luck.” The rest were things you can change…

Most recently, in JAMA Oncology, researchers sought to quantify how a healthful lifestyle might actually alter the risk of cancer. They identified four domains that are often noted to be related to disease prevention: smoking, drinking, obesity and exercise.

They defined people who engaged in healthy levels of all of these activities as a “low-risk” group. Then they compared their risk of getting cancer with people who weren’t in this group…

About 82 percent of women and 78 percent of men who got lung cancer might have prevented it through healthy behaviors. About 29 percent of women and 20 percent of men might have prevented colon and rectal cancer. About 30 percent of both might have prevented pancreatic cancer. Breast cancer was much less preventable: 4 percent.

Over all, though, about 25 percent of cancer in women and 33 percent in men was potentially preventable. Close to half of all cancer deaths might be prevented as well. [emphasis mine]

So, no, you can’t eliminate your cancer risk, but you can make a very meaningful change.  And it’s not even really all that hard.  To be low risk really isn’t all that onerous:

I was especially worried because, in this study, “low-risk” status required all four healthy lifestyles. Failing in any one domain put you in the high-risk category, and that seemed like a lot to ask of people.

On further reading, though, I discovered that the requirements weren’t overly burdensome. Not smoking was defined as never having smoked or having quit at least five years ago. That’s clearly good for health. Moderate alcohol consumption was defined as no more than one drink a day on average for women, and no more than two for men. That’s pretty much what I argued for in my column on alcohol, and in no way requires abstinence.

Adequate weight was defined as a BMI of at least 18.5 and no more than 27.5. The cutoff for “overweight” is 25, meaning that you don’t have to be thin; you just have to be less than obese (BMI 30). Finally, exercise was defined as 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. That’s the benchmark I talked about in detail two weeks ago.

I was surprised to realize that I’m already “low risk.” I bet many of you are “low risk,” too.

Hooray– I’m low risk.  I suspect that the exercise is the hang up for many.  More incentive than ever to get moving.  And, of course, these are just factors the researchers were able to study.  There’s surely additional features of healthy living (I’ve got to think there’s something to fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, etc., beyond body weight) that reduce cancer risk.  Anyway, even though we cannot eliminate our cancer risk, it certainly is good to know that we can make real progress through healthy lifestyles.

Hillary’s email

First, she was never going to be indicted.  And Comey was good enough to lay out in detail why that was so.  Liberal responses I’ve seen have generally been along the, “okay, move along now” spectrum that I think may undersell potential political implications.  Drum:

Bottom line: Hillary Clinton screwed up. She’s admitted this repeatedly. Other investigators have come to the same conclusion. If you want to criticize her for this, that’s fine. She deserves it. But there was no criminal intent and essentially no chance that a jury would have convicted her. We’ve known this for months now. Now we know it officially.

Josh Marshall:

As for Comey calling Clinton and her associates “extremely careless,” I think that’s justified. The nonsense about this being an epic crime has mainly overwhelmed the simple facts of what happened which show Clinton in a very poor light. Not a disqualifying light. But just really bad judgment on a few fronts.

All this said, this was 99.9% predictable and 100% obvious. It’s a mammoth press failure that for various reasons this reality was concealed from the public.

I really liked how Dana Milbank put Comey’s statement in context.

Meanwhile, Washington Post on-line was absolutely full of breathless coverage of the matter as if it were the scandal of the century.  That’s not good for Clinton.  Despite no indictment, journalists are not about to let go of the “scandal” angle.  Chris Ciliza decided Comey’s statement was “devastating.”

The NYT has a lead story today with the following headline, “F.B.I.’s Critique of Hillary Clinton Is a Ready-Made Attack Ad.”  The article then goes to great lengths about how vulnerable she is on all this now, e.g.,

To her charge that he is “reckless,” Mr. Trump may now respond by citing Mr. Comey’s rebuke: that Mrs. Clinton and her team “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

To her promises to defend the United States, Mr. Trump may now retort with Mr. Comey’s warning that “it is possible that hostile actors gained access” to Mrs. Clinton’s email account and the top secret information it contained.

And to her reproofs about his temperament and responsibility, Mr. Trump may now point to Mr. Comey’s finding that “there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes” on handling classified information — though Mr. Comey said that other factors, like Mrs. Clinton’s intent, argued against criminal charges.

The Times article points out that Trump might not be smart enough to properly benefit from this:

A typical nominee would have allies memorizing Mr. Comey’s best lines and repeating them on cable news and at local political events — assailing Mrs. Clinton’s judgment and experience to exploit and deepen the mistrust that many Americans feel toward her, and to drive up her unfavorability ratings in public opinion polls.

But Mr. Trump is not typical.

And they are right.  Trump is already popping off about “bribes” and going all conspiracy theory.  Exactly how not to benefit.  I think TNR’s Alex Shephard pretty well nails it, “Donald Trump Has No Clue How to Attack Hillary Clinton.”


For any Republican presidential candidate not named Donald Trump, this would have been enough. From now until November 7, the campaign would air clips of Comey’s remarks accompanied by ominous minor-key music. Even Clinton-leaning voters would have a hard time not seeing something disturbing about the director of the FBI labeling a presidential candidate irresponsible. Indeed, Senator Marco Rubio essentially hit upon this strategy in this statement, which ignored the fact that the FBI decided not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton…

And yet there’s every reason to think that Trump is about to let Clinton off the hook. He’ll continue to call her corrupt, of course, and Comey’s remarks will lead him to double down on his preferred nickname, “Crooked Hillary.” (Like The B Sharps, Trump likes nicknames that sound witty at first, but become less funny every time you hear them.) But the strategy that Rubio grasped intuitively will elude the Republican nominee. Not because he isn’t clever enough, but because Trump is incapable of delivering a sharp, precise jab when there’s a chance to go conspiratorial—thereby falling into the same trap that Clinton’s right-wing critics have been falling into for years. [emphasis mine]

I think that’s right.  Though, I imagine various superPacs will not be so stupid.  And the pundits are not going to be prepared to let this go at all.

That said, I honestly don’t think this is going to have that big an impact.  Those who are convinced Clinton is dishonest and corrupt are only more so (and, let’s be honest, actually have some real evidence this time around).  Those who have overlooked Clinton’s flaws will continue to overlook Clinton’s flaws.  And, of course, her biggest advantage– she’s running against Donald Trump, not exactly a pillar of upright behavior.

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